by Abby Ohlheiser

Weeks after the earthquake in January, 2010, five planes, filled with medical supplies, flew to Haiti. One plane was named DFTBA, which stands for Don’t Forget To Be Awesome, an acronym popularized by the nerdfighters. The other four were named Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Dumbledore, after the most familiar and beloved characters from the Harry Potter series. Partners In Health chartered the planes with $123,000 dollars raised by a group called the Harry Potter Alliance.

Perhaps best known for its ubiquitous fan fiction, Wizard Rock bands, and for titillating bookstore owners everywhere with the promise of a packed house on book launch nights, the Harry Potter fan community (also called a “fandom”) is often discussed as it exists in isolation from the “real world,” or as consumers of a widely-hyped, money-making franchise.  But the books have now all been written and the last film came out this month.  With the exception of a Harry Potter theme park in Orlando, it would seem the franchise is all out of new ways to engage its audience.  That’s where the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) comes in.

The non-profit, founded in 2005 to channel the Harry Potter fandom energy and resources into charitable work, uses parallels to the book series to build support for a broad range of causes, connections that range from direct to oblique.  One example: The HPA works for LGBT equality, and has cited the “in the closet” hidden identities of Hagrid the half-giant, Lupin the werewolf, and the protagonist Harry Potter himself, who was forced to literally live in a closet for most of his early childhood.  While for some the activism may sound like a stretch, it isn’t for series author J.K. Rowling, who was a researcher for Amnesty International before becoming a best-selling book author.  In a letter to Andrew Slack, one of HPA’s founders, Rowling wrote, “The HP Alliance is, without doubt, the purest expression of ‘the spirit of Albus Dumbledore’ yet to emerge from the Harry Potter fandom, and I am honoured and humbled that such great things are being done in Harry’s name.”

HPA is currently headed by Slack, a 31 year-old with glasses and an unfathomable amount of mental energy. He heads up a staff of over 60, most of whom are part-time volunteers.  I met Slack in April at Free Press’s National Conference for Media Reform, where he was a panelist for “Pop Culture Warriors.”  He speaks emphatically, with a tendency to take the scenic route on his trains of thought.  Within our first five minute conversation, he asked me about my work, found a connection to his, and pitched me an idea for a story. He gets people on board.

For this piece, I spoke with Slack over the phone. He was in Orlando for LeakyCon, a Harry Potter conference populated by a “who’s who” of the fandom. One half of the event’s proceeds will go to his organization, the other half to Book Aid International, a non-profit that works to make books accessible to children in Sub-Saharan Africa.

HPA’s three current campaigns speak to their scope as a charity: The Deathly Hallows campaign, staged between the release of the first and second parts of the Deathly Hollows film, tackled seven issues – evils in the world designated as horcruxes, including child slavery, illiteracy and bullying – with charitable combat.  The second campaign, “Not in Harry’s Name” is a push to pressure Warner Brothers to sell only Fair Trade chocolate for all of its Harry Potter merchandizing. The third, Imagine Better, is an attempt to organize other fan communities to work with HPA, to follow their lead and engage in serious charitable work as a broader coalition of fan organizations.  For each of these campaigns HPA employs a combination of fan-driven social media outreach with savvy courtship of traditional media looking for Harry Potter stories to accompany the release of the final film. While each campaign has a clear connection to the text (at least for those who support them).  Literal interpretation of the Harry Potter books isn’t all that’s going on, according to Slack.

“Harry Potter is a convenient myth for me to work with because it speaks to a lot of what I believe in,” Slack said. His verbal and intellectual toolbox includes Jungian ideas of archetype, stories from Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Taoist imagery, and Old Testament tenets. He uses this eclectic and beguiling combination of ideologies to explain his work with HPA.

While Harry Potter as a specific story is extremely important as a catalyst for youth involvement in charitable work (which is central to the HPA’s mission), it seems to function for Slack as a manifestation, and not a singular one, of already deeply held ideas and conviction about the greater world.  Slack is Jewish, but he’ll readily say, “I believe in Jesus,” referring to the story of Jesus as an incarnation of a redemptive myth. Like Dionysus.  Like epic heroes.

Maybe, like Potter himself.   Harry Potter as protagonist, in classic fantasy fashion, is a vessel for the reader.  Slack and other fans of the series identify strongly because of Potter’s familiarity and because his journey is brimming with symbol, allegory, and myth.  Toward the end (spoiler alert, for the 2.5 readers who have not yet made it through the series), Harry dies and is resurrected.  The Jesus parallel is obvious, but perhaps more apt is a comparison to Aeneas, or Odysseus, who return from the underworld to live out lives as mortal heroes. It’s a compelling, iconic, narrative.  Harry Potter’s incarnation of it is so familiar now that he can become a common point of reference for the themes and values contained within it.  That gives the HPA a whole lot of reach.

It’s not just the story that seems to make the HPA’s efforts so successful. Slack says that “the Harry Potter fandom is most conducive to this sort of work,” and here’s why:  In addition to HPA, Harry Potter’s fans are organized and active, and have been for years now.  Mugglenet, a hugely popular news site for fans, was founded by a 12-year-old in 1999.  It’s currently run by a modest, paid staff and 120 volunteers.  There are college leagues of Quidditch, the sport of choice for the characters in the series.  There are also podcasters, media makers, writers, activists, and musicians who participate in the fandom with a level of commitment and organization that is downright professional.  Slack, whose organization is unique in many ways, is also simply one of the many capable adults (and young adults) who have used the Harry Potter story to build community in many different directions. This diversity of production and success makes HPA’s charity work even more of an obvious result to those within the fandom.  Pam Harris, 38, the organizer of the Harry Potter Alliance NYC chapter, has said, “so many good things come out of Harry Potter, why not a charity?”

Harry Pottery:  A New Religion?

Considering the depth and breadth of the movement, it is legitimate to consider the ways in which Harry Potter, and the community who love it, may resemble or function like a religion.  But recognizing that the Harry Potter franchise has created a community of believers dedicated to good works might cause an analytical wrong turn; calling it a religion allows for one of two negative but inaccurate conclusions. For some, but certainly not all religious believers, Harry Potter-as-religion can mean that the franchise represents a dangerous idolatry, temptation to witchcraft, and a devaluing of traditionally authoritative beliefs. Likewise, for those who are disinclined to see value in religion as a broad category, the question of religiosity can qualify the community as gullible, immature, or foolish. In other words, the well-meaning comparison of religion to something that might look and smell a bit like it,allows the assumption that the “seriousness” of the community lies in some notion of its danger.  Beyond that manipulation, the question doesn’t serve to do very much for us at all.

The second common result–which also occurs any time there’s a nuanced discussion about comedy–is the loss of some fundamental tone or aspect of the community that makes it so interesting in the first place.  Discussions of comedy are invariably unfunny. Serious discussions of fandoms can lose sight of the everyday existence of the people within them. Yes, it’s just a book, or just a joke, but it’s moving.  What’s tricky is keeping both in the viewfinder.

Side effects include targeting the most extreme aspects of the fan community to prove a point about “rabid” or “obsessed” fan behavior (case in point: twihards), and finding the four adult people in the world who truly, wholly, believe that Harry Potter really exists, that the books really happened, and that one day they’ll finally get their long-delayed Hogwarts acceptance letter, and building a theory around them. When trying to take a fan community seriously, the result can often be the opposite.

And besides, these ways of discussing Harry Potter are already way out of fashion! The release of the final film last week turned out to be a moment of deeper retrospection and analysis for a handful of journalists. (See here, here, here and here for some examples.)  Maybe, like me, these writers who grew up with the series and are pre-disposed to legitimate something that contains a certain sort of meaning for them. Or maybe news outlets are sick of the “Harry Potter fans are crazy” stories they’ve run at the release of every previous film.  But also, there’s the staying power of the franchise to contend with.  The record-breaking earnings of the final film on opening weekend reflect not just a well-marketed children’s book series, but also the collective attachment of countless individuals of a certain generation to one version of a compelling story.  It’s not that Harry Potter has a particularly large “fan” following, although the fandom is quite large.  It’s that even those who read the books and do not participate in the fandom have a personal connection to the series.

So let’s stay away from calling Harry Potter a sacred text (or, as one interview subject incredulously exclaimed after I brought up religious mission work, “Wait. WAIT. Are we actually comparing Harry Potter to the Bible?”), because such a line of questioning has little to do with how readers–at any level of passion for the series–see it.  Far from comparing fans to a religion or a cult (or trying to prove they’re not), I’d like to look at what enthusiasm for Harry Potter does.  Or rather, what it makes.

They’re Not Religious, They Just Love Harry

There’s a lot of slippage into religious language, specifically Judeo-Christian language, when discussing the gears of Harry Potter as charity, as workers in the world for change, as mission.  Slack speculates that this is because the experience of having an intimate relationship with the Harry Potter story is located partially in the grooves carved by what religion does for us.  “The reason that it resonates very deeply is precisely because it meets some of the same needs as religion,” he said.  And because of that, it can do some of the things that religion does without actually being it.

Slack continued, “This is a both/and sort of thing.  On the one hand [the HPA] is not religious at all…it is a friggin story, and nobody that I know is fanatical in the sense that they think of it as something that is real…Dumbledore is not real, but why shouldn’t he be real as something that is in your head?”

Or as Shrima Pandey, 17, an HPA staffer and one of the members of the organization’s New York City chapter, said in an email, “I feel all forms of fictional art have a deeply rooted connection to ourselves and are great platforms for doing good and spreading justice. There is a thin line between fantasy and reality and the HPA is just one of the first organizations to take this idea and run with it. “

Can you Testify?

The Harry Potter Pensieve, a website where fans are asked to submit their favorite moments as a Harry Potter fan, has collected comments that read like testimony, like stories of transformation, of conversion, of revelation.  Many are written by children, or occurred during childhood.  Here are a few examples:

Harry Came to me in the middle of a perfectly horrid time in my life. My parents were getting divorced…It was like the divorce was a weight placed on my chest, it was suffocating me. And Harry Potter was recommend to me by a friend. I picked it up, and was instantly addicted. Here was a book that had done the impossible and lifted this weight.  – Anonymous submission, The Potter Pensieve

I am 14 and most of the people in my grade know me as “That Harry Potter girl.” And you know what, I love it. Harry Potter will always be a place of refuge for millions upon millions of kids, and I know it will be one of the first books I read to mine. – Anonymous submission, The Potter Pensieve

I believe I was 9 years old, getting ready to turn 10. I resisted reading the Harry Potter books for the entire school year, thinking that a children’s book version of wizardry and witchcraft HAD to be stupid. Then, one fateful March day, after I had read all of the other books on display in my teacher’s classroom, I curiously picked up a softcover of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and took it home with me. From the moment I opened the book up, I was unable to put it down. My first true love was the Harry Potter world. I read through the book hungrily, as though I was possessed. – Anonymous submission, The Potter Pensieve

Part of what the HPA does, and arguably what the Harry Potter series does, is take these childhood or teenaged moments seriously, as a source of something that can be productive.  The characters, after all, begin their epic journey at age eleven, and their story is told as a children’s story.  As the characters grow, the story’s subject matter darkens, the mood shifts, and the entire tone of the series grows up. It’s hard to do the archaeology on whether this progression was entirely of Rowling’s design, or if it was, unconsciously or consciously, a response to the aging of the fan base, a group of kids who grew up with the books, literally, a sense of responsibility to continue to speak to a community that has, to Rowling’s delight, spoken back.   But in either case, the effect is that the series keeps up with its admirers. By doing so, it’s possible that the series encourages the sort of action many of its biggest fans seem to engage in.

J.K. Rowling

But then, where do Harry Potter-as-motivator and Harry Potter-as-activist overlap, and which produces more?  Take Slack’s testimony. He read the books for the first time, as an adult, just after graduating from Brandeis University.  He was working with kids who talked about the book constantly, and decided to take a look. “I read that first chapter and I felt something go through me. The only other time I’ve felt that was when I read Hermen Hesse’s Siddhartha, and I turned to the person next to me and said ‘I think this book just changed my life.’” But not in the way you might be thinking.  He continues:

By the time I graduated college I had this whole vision of an organization I was going to start that essentially was going to be a harbinger of a movement that already existed, but like the childlike empress in the Neverending Story, needed a name.  And needed something organized around it.  And it had something to do with the power of psychology, and the power of the arts and creativity, creating social change… And I kept trying to create this movement, and it kept not working.  It was finally when I decided to start the Harry Potter Alliance that the idea I wanted to do became gigantic.

Likewise, Pam Harris has been involved in charity work for as long as she can remember, first at the local Jewish community center with her parents, and then with NY Cares.  So for her, too, the power of Harry Potter as a source of charity work comes not from how it created her own impulse, but from who it allows her to reach. “Not many groups have reached out to kids like [HPA] has,” she says.

Slack calls the approach of HPA “cultural acupuncture,” which he characterizes as a way to reach communities of people based on their current interests, rather than trying to cultivate interest in issues, or around cultural objects that are already considered high canon.  And this, he says, is epitomized in what is needed to reach kids.

“There’s a movie coming out on Friday night, and kids are interested in that.  They don’t give a shit about Steinbeck yet.  But they can.  Open their hearts and their minds based on what they’re interested in now.  And it’s not crap just because it’s not considered a classic,” says Slack.

When the book becomes a way to reach out, it changes the function of the fandom, by incorporating extant tendencies and habits of its readers with the fandom itself.  Whether Harry Potter appeals to a certain set of political or social beliefs and tendencies, and engages what’s already there, or whether it serves as an argument for those ideas, it provides an easy platform to move from fandom–speculation about the next book, the next new bit of media or commodity to consume–to fandom as one form of active community in the greater world.  And making that activity matter.

“We SAY we love Harry Potter, but are we acting like it?” Slack asks.

Chapter and Verse

In Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore so accurately states, ‘Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.’ Reading this, I came to understand that inequality and injustice exist in both Harry’s world as well as our own. Similarly, in Chapter 26 of The Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore says to Harry, ‘Age is foolish and forgetful when it underestimates youth.’ This line truly resonates with me for I always feel underestimated because I am young yet the HPA refuses to factor that in as a means to measure intelligence. – Shrima Pandey

Dumbledore

Of course it’s all in your head, Harry, but why should that mean it isn’t real? – Dumbledore, quoted by Andrew Slack.

It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well. – Dumbledore, quoted by Pam Harris

Ask HPA members about their favorite Harry Potter moments, the ones that influence their work, and you get Dumbledore quotes.  Dumbledore, Harry’s benevolent, bearded mentor, is a catalyst, a sort of Ghandi or Dalai Lama figure in the series.  The quotes speak directly to the work of HPA volunteers, and help to explain why the Harry Potter series is such a great motivator for charity work.  But, as the franchise winds down, the HPA is looking to evolve beyond the chapter and verse quoted to me, to spark the same work in other fandoms.

The fandom-as-mission model is not unique to Harry Potter lovers.  But often, fan groups raise money for charities supported by or endorsed by celebrities associated with the franchise. An Australian X-files fan group raises money for a charity co-founded by one of the show’s stars.  The “Browncoats,” the preferred moniker of fans of Joss Whedon’s Firefly TV series, made a fan film to raise money for five charities, including those favored by Whedon.

Nothing wrong with that.  But these examples of charity–giving to the favorite cause of a celebrity associated with a book, show, or movie one loves–are different from what the HPA does.  The Browncoats film, “Redemption,” gave the series’ fans a sequel to the first (and only) professionally produced film after the series ended its short run.  HPA’s gears, however turn within, in ways not always dependent on its fandom.

Slack hopes that his “cultural acupuncture” theory will successfully expand HPA beyond its own fandom.  “I’m interested in how meeting people where they’re at and what they’re interested in can go from lead to gold in that sort of ancient alchemy idea,” he says.

All this suggests that what the HPA represents – and, perhaps, what the phenomenon of the Harry Potter fandom represents – is the potential to influence a generation to activism.  As the series winds down, its biggest money-making opportunities over, the story will settle into a new place in the public eye.  And as its fans grow up, we’ll see just how much of a cultural touchstone the books do or do not continue to be. To be sure, Slack is onto something by tapping into fan communities for social action. It is fully possible that soon we’ll hear about planes full of supplies named Bella, Edward, Mal, or River making their way to a region in need.  But I’ll take a plane named Dumbledore any day.  It just has a certain ring to it.

Abby Ohlheiser is a journalist and graduate student at NYU’s Religion and Journalism program.